Shammi Quddus is probably one of the most fascinating people you will ever meet. She is a Bangladeshi Product Manager at Google based in Sunnyvale holding dual degrees MBA and MPAID from Stanford GSB and the Harvard Kennedy School, the co-founder of BYLC (Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center), an engineer, a family woman, and a martial arts enthusiast with black belts in karate and taekwondo who has recently developed a penchant for podcasts during the pandemic.
As you can expect, TBS had loads of questions and follow-up questions to pick her brain and know her story. Luckily, we were able to catch up with her in an exclusive interview where we got to know her better and hear her thoughts on Google, the tech industry of Bangladesh, etc.
Tell us about your journey from your hometown in Chittagong to working for Google at Sunnyvale.
Childhood: I grew up in Chittagong as my parents were both professors at Chittagong University. Being the child of academics, I was a stereotypical studious child. However, my parents never pressured me into getting certain grades or any extracurricular.
They just let me be and encouraged me in all endeavours - or even lack thereof! I remember I dropped art after a few lessons, and they were not fussed. I think that laidback attitude instilled in me a genuine love of learning for the sake of learning and genuine scientific curiosity rather than pressure for grades or parental approval.
My mother is a physics professor, so she taught me all the math and science growing up. Newton's laws of physics were dinner table conversation. She made science a part of life by asking such questions "So do you know why the chair is not collapsing under your weight?"
My father, on the other hand, instilled in me a love of reading books. Every two weeks, he would take me to the British Council to check out books. I remember that I could check out four books for two weeks.
Those afternoon rickshaw rides through the streets of Chittagong as a child, books on lap, holding my father's hand are very dear to my heart. Fundamentally, what both my parents instilled in me was boundless confidence that I could be whatever I wanted to be which as a child I took for granted, which in hindsight, I realise was something very few girls got to do even in middle-class educated households.
When I look around, almost all the boys, even with mediocre grades were encouraged to apply abroad by their families while for the girls it wasn't even an option because of the misguided notion that "girls should only go abroad with a male guardian". This mindset of not having any mental boundaries created the foundation of almost every endeavour in my life, whether to pursue martial arts, applying to universities in the US, travel and pursue non-traditional career paths.
In high school, I gave the SAT I and II exams and applied to universities in the US. I applied for a total of 14 as I wasn't sure which one would give me a scholarship or financial aid. I got accepted to most of them and decided to attend MIT. I remember it took me a very long time to submit applications with dial-up internet! When the internet was being used, the landline phone would not work. Being an undergraduate at MIT was life-changing in every way.
Everyone knows about the rigorous engineering curriculum, but MIT is also an amazing place to explore all kinds of other disciplines such as economics, political science, design.
I did a bit of everything and found a passion for international development work. In my sophomore year, I co-founded a youth leadership program that would eventually become Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center (www.bylc.org).
The first grant for that came from MIT. I remember drafting the proposal during my winter break in the empty student centre as everyone was away for a break. The founding of BYLC ignited in me the love of starting things from the ground up - transforming an idea into reality is intoxicating!
Professional Life: I graduated from MIT with a BSc in Environmental Engineering and worked as a professional engineer with AECOM, the largest infrastructure engineering firm in the world. However, I did not enjoy the work as my heart was in building things and in development work.
In 2011, I moved back to Bangladesh to be part of the leadership team of WaterHealth International's Bangladesh operations. Those three years of working in Bangladesh, first helping WaterHealth put up their water treatment facilities in Chittagong and then at Jeeon helping develop the first version of their telemedicine product, made me realise that while it wasn't very difficult to start things, scaling them was an entirely different matter and an area I needed to work on if I wanted to become an effective leader.
As a result, I decided to apply for graduate schools in the USA.
Graduate Education and Google: I did a dual degree - an MBA and MPAID (Master in Public Administration in International Development) between Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Harvard Kennedy School.
After finishing the program, I joined Google, where I am currently working as a Product Manager in their Payments Platform team. Our team supports all of Google's monetisation functions. Anytime you pay Google or are paid by Google, the money moves through our team. In other words, I get to work with all the Google products, including YouTube, Maps, Adwords, Play, which support billions of users. Coming from working in startups where at most I designed for a few hundred users, to design for Google's billions of users feels breathtaking.
What was the reason behind your transition from Environmental Engineering to a joint degree in MPA/ID-MBA?
When I was working as an environmental engineer at the beginning of my career, I found myself mostly analysing data and building statistical models. It was theoretical.
I wanted to be doing things that had a real impact on the lives of people which was why I switched careers to join a new venture called WaterHealth in Bangladesh where my role would be building water manufacturing plants in rural Bangladesh. Helping start a new company from the ground up exposed me to a variety of roles: I was talking to customers, running marketing campaigns, negotiating leases with the landowner, trying to get an electricity connection from RBI, presenting to the board, making hiring decisions, fine-tuning our pricing, etc. It showed me both my strengths and areas of improvements.
I realised I need to work on both my leadership and financial planning skills hence the desire to do an MBA. On the other hand, my on-ground experience showed me how difficult it is to create and measure the positive impact of one's work. Working with government officials also showed me how important good policies were. Hence I decided to apply for the Master of Public Administration in International Development at the Harvard Kennedy School. When I got accepted to both, I decided to enrol in both.
How would you describe your experience of simultaneously completing two Master's degrees at once as you did at Stanford GSB and Harvard?
Became an expert in packing and unpacking: I get this question a lot since the two universities are thousands of miles apart! However, it is not complicated logistically since the curriculum is set by the two schools in such a way that the student completes one year at each school while the third year is split in half. It involved a lot of moving back and forth, and finding housing was a challenge, but I just became an expert at living out of suitcases and quickly packing and unpacking my life!
Experienced vastly different university cultures and values: What I loved about the two schools is that they are very different culture-wise. Stanford is one of the key driving forces that has made Silicon Valley what it is, fuelling foundational technological innovations that spawned transformational companies. The sense that anything is possible is very much a part of the DNA of students, faculty and culture. Harvard has a different culture since its impact is broader than technology. Political and moral leadership is at the centre of its ethos. Harvard made me more aware of social justice issues, why policy-making is important, why politics is important, and that a functioning democracy requires everyone to do their civic duty.
Cross-pollinated ideas from one campus to another: At the GSB, where conversations would be around growth hacking and who raised the most venture money, I would be raising my hand to ask questions on the ethical implications of such fast growth which was a direct result of my Harvard training. On the other hand, in the Kennedy School, I could ask how policy can keep up with the breakneck speed of technological innovation that is often so complex that policymakers need years to understand its consequences.
What are the top three books you think everyone should read?
I have only one recommendation: 'Thinking, Fast and Slow'. This book is a long but essential reading to understand how flawed our thought processes are and how we can correct them. Our brains have evolved to make sure we survive in the wild. Many of the primal, subconscious decision-making does not serve us well in a complex, multi-racial, and multicultural world. For example, it is our natural bias to prefer those who look and sound like us. In a tribal society, this had helped with tribal cohesion but today this would lead to exclusion and discrimination against those who are not like ourselves. The book has helped me immensely in my personal and professional life to improve critical reasoning.
Tell us more about your responsibilities as a Product Manager at Google. What's the most fun you had at work? Rate your level of 'Googliness'.
As a Product Manager, my responsibility is to define the 'what' of a product. The includes balancing many competing demands - user needs, technical feasibility, regulatory constraints, revenue impact, Google vision and mission, etc.
Using the requirements I write, the engineering team designs the technical implementation and the user experience team designs what it will look like to the user. I really enjoy my job since it puts me in the middle of everything and lets me define the vision and direction of a product. Product managers are also in a strategically advantageous position to spot new opportunities and have a lot of freedom to drive new ideas from inception to launch.
Unfortunately, we have been working from home for 14 months so not a lot of fun is happening right now! Before things shut down, we did a cooking class as a team where we learned to cook Moroccan food.
I would rate my Googliness as 5/5! A key aspect of Googliness is the ability to thrive in ambiguity. I naturally lean into ambiguity since that is where innovations come from. Problems for which solutions are known will not lead to anything new. It's when a problem has no solution is when creative solutions are born.
How can Google help make the world a better place? Which industries and fields do you think will experience the biggest growth in the future?
Since I was a teenager, I have been Googling my way through life. Googling, "How to apply to colleges in the USA?" is how my journey with foreign education started. It wasn't common in Chattogram for students to apply to the US for undergrad thus Google was my guidance counsellor. Even for my MBA/MPA-ID degrees, I Googled high and low for scholarships (and got some too!). Without it, someone like me, in a high school in Chattogram would not have made it to MIT. In that regard, I think Google's mission "To organise the world's information and make it universally accessible" is timeless and relevant today just as it was twenty years ago when it was founded. In this era of fake news, Google can continue to make the world a better place by ensuring search results are trustworthy and reliable.
What's the biggest difference between working at a behemoth like Google and a fresh start-up?
Great question. Having worked in start-ups, one of the reasons I wanted to work for Google is to experience the other extreme. The biggest difference is the high degree of specialisation everyone has. In a start-up, you end up doing a bit of everything. The advantage of that is you have exposure to many different skill sets which makes you very resourceful. The downside is that you sacrifice excellence. In a company like Google, everyone is excellent at what they do. I can rely on the engineering team to come up with the best technical implementation. On the UX side, some content writers will spend weeks writing a two-line copy to make sure it's the right tone, it's inclusive across gender, race and religion. I can focus only on the product and doing that really well while relying on my colleagues to do the same in their respective roles.
As a woman in tech and a managerial position, do you think the glass ceiling exists? Similarly, do you think having more women in the C-suite translates into better gender equality everywhere else? Why or why not?
If you look around the table it's clear that women are underrepresented in most roles and levels, and especially in leadership positions.
Promoting women to leadership positions does not immediately translate to equality because
(1) We are banking on that individual woman to make a lot of decisions which they most likely cannot do single-handedly in large organisations
(2) Women also have the same biases as men because we are all raised with the same patriarchal society that treats women less smart, less brave, less in general. Women also internalise some of these ideas subconsciously.
For women to be equally represented in every level of an organisation, an equal number of men and women need to be interviewed for every position. For women to be promoted at the same rates as men, we have to make sure the process is free from bias.
In general, men are projected as leaders and bold while women as aggressive and cold for demonstrating the same qualities. A man will be promoted for the same qualities that a woman might be penalised for. In short, a lone woman or two at the C-suite does not create lasting change, what matters is equal representation of women at every level of an organisation and function.
A system that can ensure that will also ensure all other underrepresented groups - disabled, transgendered, racial or religious minorities, also rise to levels of leadership and the organisation as a whole will be better for everyone.
Tell us more about your hobbies and the things you like to do for fun. Any special interests?
I am really into podcasts since the pandemic began. Specifically, my favourite technology podcast is Ben Thompson's Stratechary while my favourite science and policy podcast is Radiolab.
We know that you are a Taekwondo enthusiast. What belt do you have?
I am a huge martial arts enthusiast and it's a key part of my self-development journey. I started training in karate when I was 16 in Chattogram where I received my black belt and also medalled at divisional and national championships.
In Bangladesh, women don't get the opportunity for sport, whereas boys can casually kick around a ball and play cricket as a natural part of growing up. As a result, women are not confident of their body and strength or know what it means to train, compete and win in a team.
Learning karate transformed me. In martial arts, you have to 'kiap' loudly to let your breath out. I was so shy at first, you could hardly hear me and my sensei would scold me. But as I grew more confident in my body, my kiap got louder and louder until you could hear it all across the gymnasium. The finding of my kiap was the literal finding of my voice - how it sounded loud and strong, reverberating across the halls for everyone to hear.
Growing up in Bangladesh, karate was my safe space where I found confidence in my voice, my body and myself. I took that to MIT and picked up taekwondo. I had to start over from a yellow belt as taekwondo is a different martial art. In four years I also gained my black belt in taekwondo. MIT's taekwondo program was one of the toughest things I have done in my life but so worth it.
I competed with the university team for four years and also medalled at the collegiate levels in the US. I truly learned how to train and compete as an athlete at the highest level. Unfortunately, I had knee injuries which put me out of the sport soon after graduation but I am hoping to return to it in a lighter capacity with my kids when they are old enough. I want to be their first coach!
What's the secret behind balancing a successful career, academics and a happy family life? Does there have to be a trade-off?
I hope you ask this question to men and women and not just to women. I feel women are asked about balancing family and work but men are expected just to work.
Everyone has to have a balanced life and if men don't do their share of the family caregiving then women can never have a balanced life. I believe there is a trade-off since we have 24 hours in a day.
I got this advice from Larry Bacow (around 2014) who is now the President of Harvard University (since 2018). He met a group of us, students, for dinner at the Harvard Kennedy School and heard most of us late-twenty-somethings agonising over career decisions and family trade-offs. He said at any given time in a relationship you won't be 50-50. Sometimes you will give 80 and take only 20 and other times you will be taking 80 and giving 20. Just make sure over the lifetime it averages out to 50-50. This definition of balance really resonated with me. I try to apply that to not only marriage but also other things. Sometimes work might be 80% of my life, and family 20% but then I have to make sure that at other times it's flipped.
What would you say were the highlights of your life? What were your most significant and most challenging moments in life?
Getting accepted to MIT with full financial aid changed the direction of my life overnight, literally by the opening of an email. The effects of that moment are still true today after 15 years.
Attending Harvard and Stanford: Another big dream come true.
Marriage: Marrying Ejaj Ahmad, founder of BYLC. He always inspires me with his ability to think big, take risks, and effortlessly speak in public without any preparation.
Kids: We have two kids (5 and 2) who are a joy and blessing to behold
What are your thoughts on the blossoming tech industry in Bangladesh?
I am very encouraged to see the progress and the increasing larger series A raises. I stay very plugged into the latest start-ups, founders, investors, funding raises. It's great to see that young people and their families now look at tech entrepreneurship positively since services like bKash and Pathao have become part of day-to-day life. I think our policymakers are also working very hard to create an enabling environment that has accelerated our growth in this space.
One thing that concerns is the lack of women as founders and investors. In all ecosystems, starting from Silicon Valley to South East Asia the tech start-up scene creates incredible wealth. In Silicon Valley, the wealth created during the early 2000s has gone mostly to men, resulting in a great wealth gap. Similar trends tend to repeat themselves in other geographical hubs. Bangladesh can potentially avoid the same issue if women are active in the ecosystem from early on. No matter what the role, or small or big, women just need to get in.
What are your plans for the future?
I am very passionate about product management and the fintech space. I hope to be building products in this space now and in the near future.